Iran’s hopes for a U.S. policy reset

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: It’s Thursday, the 21st of January, 2021.

We’re so glad you’ve joined us for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Myrna Brown.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: Iran.

The new administration faces a list of daunting challenges, including public health and the economic fallout from the lockdowns. So it’s not likely that Iran tops the priority list. But that could change.

BROWN: Some experts say Tehran may force its way onto the Biden agenda. The rogue state may want to test an administration it views as weaker than its predecessor. Is team Biden ready? WORLD’s Jill Nelson reports.

JILL NELSON, REPORTER: In May 2018, then President Donald Trump announced a major shift in U.S. policy toward Iran.

TRUMP: I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. In a few moments I will sign a presidential memorandum to begin reinstating U.S. nuclear sanctions on the Iranian regime.

And in January 2020, Trump authorized the assasination of Iran’s most powerful military commander, General Qasem Suleimani.

These actions earned Trump a reputation in the Middle East as a tough guy.

KNIGHTS: Their militias and Iran itself have more respect for the Trump administration when it comes to its track record at undertaking military retaliation. They don’t know what the Biden administration will be like yet. 

Michael Knights is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He says Iran will likely test President Joe Biden’s determination and level of attention to Iran in the first six months of his administration. Iran’s presidential election is scheduled for June. And Knights says Iran’s proxy groups are itching for revenge against the United States for Soleimani’s death.

KNIGHTS: Those militias have been restrained while the Trump administration was still in position in case it retaliated against Iran directly but perhaps Iran won’t be able to restrain those Iraqi militias after January 20th. In fact, some of those militias have been saying exactly that: We have to wait until after January 20th to get our revenge. 

That could mean an attack on Americans in Iraq, Syria, or the Gulf region.

Other signs of trouble brewing: Iran earlier this month seized a South Korean oil tanker in the Strait of Hormuz. Tehran has $7 billion dollars in oil payments frozen in South Korea due to U.S. sanctions.

Knights says Iran has a well-established playbook for moving itself up the international agenda.

KNIGHTS: They may do things to attract attention to the Iran portfolio and to the urgency of reentering nuclear negotiations or undertaking sanctions relief. 

Biden wants to re-enter the Iran deal if Tehran returns to full compliance. That would allow lifting sanctions. But Israel and some Arab States worry a return to the nuclear deal means Washington will turn a blind eye to Iran’s bad behavior in the region.

Knights says some of these concerns are warranted:

KNIGHTS: The Biden team is very hesitant to link the nuclear and nonnuclear issues together and say we can’t have pro progress on nuclear issues unless we have progress on the nonnuclear. But I think in reality the two are kind of linked.

Others have pointed out the benefits of Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach. Jake Sullivan is President Biden’s pick for national security adviser. He was part of the original negotiations with Iran for the nuclear agreement, also known as the JCPOA. He acknowledged during an interview with the Hudson Institute last May that he was wrong about some aspects of the Trump administration’s Iran policy.

SULLIVAN: Advocates and defenders of the JCPOA, myself included, thought when the Trump administration pulled out and imposed unilateral sanctions, that those sanctions were not likely to be as effective, because the Trump administration wasn’t bringing the rest of the world along with them. That didn’t turn out to be true. Actually, those sanctions have been very effective in the narrow sense of causing deep economic pain in Iran. 

But Sullivan also pointed out a major drawback to leaving the nuclear deal: Iran is closer to a nuclear weapon today than when Trump took office. And we no longer have a way to monitor Tehran’s quest for a nuclear weapon.

Iran announced this month that it’s using more advanced centrifuges and enriching uranium to 20 percent. That crosses a red line drawn by many European countries and Israel.

Former Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross says Iran has shrunk the time frame it needs to reach weapons-grade material.

ROSS: We need an approach that’s going to extend that time and therefore reduce the nature of the threat. 

Ross spent 25 years serving in senior national security positions for both Democrat and Republican presidents. He does not think a return to the nuclear deal is feasible for the Biden team.

ROSS: You’re going to find it difficult to get Republican support and you do certainly have doubts from some of our regional partners.

Ross proposes a “less for less” approach. For example, Iran scales back its uranium enrichment and centrifuges while the United States allows Tehren to access some of its overseas accounts. That would keep the sanctions in place.

ROSS: So I view the less for less arrangement as a way to get around some of the difficulties created by the JCPOA while also building what is a more sustainable basis to buy time and preserve leverage at the same point. 

Maintaining leverage would allow the administration to deal with other issues like Iran’s regional destabilization, human rights violations, and ballistic missile program.

Michael Knights says rebuilding nuclear negotiations will likely take time, but we should keep an eye on the clock.

KNIGHTS: Some people wonder if it’s a very short window, if we’ve got, it can’t be done in the first six months of 2021 but it kind of has to be done in the last six months of 2021 otherwise that window may be lost forever because the Iranians for instance push forward with their nuclear program to the point where there is no turning back.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jill Nelson.

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci) President Joe Biden pauses as he signs his first executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, in Washington. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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